Category Archives: Teaching

A for Effort

In the midst of my chaotic China welcome, I snuck in a trip to the outskirts of Tangshan and an overdue visit to the Lu family cutters. It’s been almost three years since I’ve been out east of Beijing and I was anxious to check in.

I was happy to find the Lu family unchanged in the ways that matter: still ineffably warm, earnest and thriving in their multiple modalities. Both father and mother Lu, while busy helping son Tianxiang set up his new apartment in preparation for a wife, catch me up on their latest happenings. The apartment is on the fifth floor of the third building in a large complex of newly built identical high-rises, which are no stranger to the China skyline.

The apartment building is so new, there are only a few neighbors as of yet – everyone in a different state of preparation.


In the Lu’s apartment, the electric kang (traditionally a steam-heated brick bed) is the only piece of furniture in the place so far. His father is working on the baseboards, his mother on making new buckwheat husk pillows and Tianxiang is intent on patching in the light switches. The pride of having his own place shows in Tianxiang. He lights up when he talks about how he’ll decorate the walls with his father’s shadow puppetry and display his cutting tools on a specially designed shelf. I am honored to be the apartment’s first guest and sleep like a log on the kang.

The next morning, I see that the hustle and bustle of movement and improvement within the small household is no different from the small town of Han Cheng itself. Just a 20 minute bus ride outside of Tangshan proper, Han Cheng is starting to outgrow its dirt roads and farmland feel. There’s a few fast food chains setting up shop in the first floor of the new high-rise apartment buildings and the street’s nightlife reveals a swarming population of younger folk. Tianxiang’s building complex is just one of a few that now break up the previously flat horizon of corn and millet fields.

Shortly after breakfast, Tianxiang takes me to the small village another 20 minutes further out of Tangshan, named Damengang. Here, in collaboration with a few progressive educators, Tianxiang has been developing shadow puppet curriculum with a small village school. The program has been a success from the beginning, clearly evident with a tour through the school’s exhibition room. The pieces on display are creative, careful and wonderful.

plastic headThis cutting sample is made by a student out of thin, flexible plastic – a more economic learning material than leather.

Later, I am privileged to meet the artists themselves. In the hallway, a band of students are studiously at work carving leather pieces on wax boards and painting the finished parts with watercolor.



In the music room, there is another group manipulating shadow puppets with help of a local troupe and when they see their teacher has arrived, they ready themselves for performance. We are treated to a short set of shows with students at the helm of each. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up a bit seeing the young and the old working together behind the screen.

young and old

Like everything else he does, Tianxiang has created this program with the utmost care and thought. From the choice of plastic for the beginning cutters to the beautiful wax boards for the advanced students, this is no afternoon activity. A well-laid lesson plan of shadow puppet making integrated with performance practice, encouraged by both its long tradition and the pressing need for creativity — this is the kind of thing shadow puppetry needs. Who better to inherit and evolve the craft than China’s youth?

Tianxiang drops me off at his new apartment after a full day at the school. Shortly, he will head back to his parents house for the night. There isn’t much that needs to be said. He knows how much it has meant to me and I know how much it means to him. This work, this toil he offers on his days off, free nights and free hours from his day job in the city — it is something. They cycle of inspiration continues and we carry on.

the fam at their old homeThe Lus at their “old home” in western Han Cheng

Thanks for reading~

For previous stories on the Lus: 
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Reach Out and Touch Someone

As I’ve continued to delve into the world of Chinese shadow puppetry, it’s become clearer and clearer to me that the form’s continued obscurity is one of its main obstacles to survival. In North America, when I begin to tell someone what I do, and they’re kind enough not to glaze over in the eyes, I usually get one of a few standard responses: 1) You mean like the Muppets? 2) Like Being John Malkovich? 3) Or, they put up their hands in a complicated tangle of fingers and say ‘like this?’ In China, the problem isn’t that much better. Everyone has heard of shadow puppetry, but very few have ever seen a live performance.

For numerous reasons, China wasn’t a large exporter of their cultural forms throughout the middle part of the 1900s. Even now, though China has ostensibly become increasingly open, the focus remains on economics, the environment and politics, which leaves little room to push the arts as ambassadors. Even if they had, most of their folk arts forms haven’t warranted enough attention to be exported, even when that has been the trend. There has been the odd article here, the occasional post or book there, but for the most part Chinese shadow puppetry still remains out of the general consciousness.

This lack of attention has seemed to stutter my research at times, making me divert my attention away from the work simply to publicize. But, over the years, this has actually helped hone the work, my goals and continues to reinvigorate what the true mission of my research should always be: sharing and engaging. Just when I think I’m tired of hitting the book, writing papers, conducting fieldwork – I am gifted a moment of true sharing and it does wonders to propel me forward.

Just this past spring, I’ve had the great honor to present a lecture/workshop at the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts (aka puppet-wonderland) and a demo/workshop at the incredible Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Both experiences, while acting as platforms for me to share Chinese shadow puppetry, were also vehicles towards sharpening my own understanding of how to share the work and what about it is relevant to a diverse North American public.

In Atlanta, the workshop participants were largely made of up adult educators and puppet professionals. The center’s educational outreach has also mastered the webinar format – allowing participants from as far away as Hawaii and Australia to participate as long as they have an internet connection! This was a first for me.

annie intro whole room The webinar audience is supported by a team of folks who video and moderate questions and information.  It’s fabulous if you’re stuck in the boondocks but want to join in puppet workshops.

They all delighted me with deeply considered questions about the history, but more interestingly, they wanted to know about the making process: how was the leather handled, what types of blades are used to cut the hide, what pigment options are out there, what are the joints and rods made out of, etc. This engineering minutia is the aspect of my work that I have shared the least. Hearing their curiosity confirmed that I’m not alone in my interests here.

In Virginia, the museum’s incredible art education and events staff and I developed a new set-up for large groups of festival goers to partake in both/either shadow puppetry or a make-your-own shadow puppet project.  With a family audience of around three thousand people in a matter of a few short hours, we knew we had to make both activities easily accessible and feasible, but also engaging and interactive.  Most successful were the new simplified child-proof Chinese-style shadow puppets I created that are sturdy enough for the rowdiest of kid rebels, yet beautiful enough to warrant enchantment. (A Do-It-Yourself Post will follow in a few weeks.)

PuppetpicA plastic, child-proof Chinese shadow male clown figure, ready for play.

I’ve toyed with plastic before and never loved the results, but these satisfied me. And, most importantly, the kids (and adults) fell in love with them.

VMFA1 Parents often ‘help’ their kids get acquainted behind the screen, but really end up enjoying it just as much as their half-pints.

VMFA2I love the natural curiosity to see what’s going on on both sides of the screen, even when you’re the one doing the puppeting.

We had kids who were there so long, I had to request they make room for others only to find them back again after a short pause. At moments in the chaos, I’d look around the mob of children at the screen or studiously making their shadow puppet and felt profoundly encouraged. There was a reason Chinese shadow puppetry survived and thrived for so long, and there is a reason it should continue – it’s just taking a little time to catch up to this crazy modern world. Proof is in the puppet.

Thanks for reading~

It’s A Small World

I first met Joanne Oussoren and Frans Hakkemars of Droomtheater in Hong Kong, where we had gathered for Mingri Theatre Company’s Puppetry in Education conference.  There, even amongst a crowd of other puppeteers, we repeatedly found ourselves in conversations.  Perhaps it was because of their similar interests in puppetry as a vehicle for passing on cultural inheritance or our shared love of ancient forms of theatre.  Most likely, I suspect is was simply their open and inquisitive nature that drew me to them.

As community artists working often in their own neighborhoods in and around the burgeoning working-class metropolis of Rotterdam, Holland, they saw added complexity to the questions we were asking about traditions, inheritance and heritage as their immigrant population continues to swell.  We went our separate ways after just a few days, looking for future ways to put our questions into practice.

Fast-forward to November 2012 and I find myself across from Joanne and Frans at the breakfast table in Holland.  We’re still heavy in conversation, but this time over toast with chocolate sprinkles and an impressive array of cheeses.  Our dream of a collaboration was made real with generous funding from both private and public Netherlands entities and we’re anxious to get started.

Joanne and Frans have envisioned a program to fully involve the children of Feijnoord (a small township in the city of Rotterdam) in a cultural story important to Holland: Sinterklaas and his carnival of animals.   I’m here to guide the creation of this story within a simplified Chinese shadow style, accessible for ages 5-14.   The children begin with shadow puppet design and creation, then rehearsal and finally a performance for the community.  By letting the children become apart of every step of the process, we believe that this will deepen the embodiment of the story and enrich the learning experience.

Of all the iterations of our workshops, the most exciting was working in Feijnoord’s private afterschool program with children ages 6-12.  The township of Feijnoord is a historically popular place for new immigrants with its low rent and convenient proximity to the city center.  Currently, 80% of the township’s population is non-Dutch, with most of the immigrants coming in from Turkey and Morocco.

The afterschool program is a rare hold over from decades past – their building awkwardly stuck right in between rows of traditional Dutch apartments.


As the clock strikes three, dozens of kids speaking a myriad of languages stream into the waiting activities of the able-bodied volunteers.  This time, we’ve got shadow puppets for them.


And while these puppets may not look anything like the puppets I’ve been researching for 4 years, they are inherently Chinese in design and engineering.  We’ve developed a simplified method of using permanent markers on clear plastic so that kids don’t have to spend five years mastering leather cutting before they can make a great shadow puppet.  The control rods and joint methods are all faithfully Chinese.  I wonder if all this newness will derail their energy – it doesn’t.  They don’t even hesitate – there is an appetite here.  They dive in, mistakes and all and create some of the most alive puppets I’ve seen yet.





I’ve often been ‘warned’ about the ‘chaotic nature’ of such groups but I never find it to be thus.  Yes, they’re awfully loud and yes, it’s hard to keep them on track sometimes, yes.  But, truly, it’s only kids being kids in the best way possible – fully.  I’m much more disconcerted when I see children so well behaved that they’re afraid to color outside of the lines.   This paralytic fear of wrongness and failure are a much more serious problem.

I could go on and on here about the necessity of arts in a child’s development and how tests and data prove that the arts help children excel in all other fields but I won’t.  I’m just going to say that at its most fundamental level, the arts erase the right/wrong binary and encourage the infinite possibilities of everything.  I strongly believe that in the near future we’re going to need more creative and empathic thinkers than good chart readers.

After just an hour and a half of managing the chaos, the kids funnel out as fast as they funneled in and for a moment we are left in the loud silence.  I am exhausted but smiling.  It’s clear that these kids, with their unflinching ability to move forward – mistakes and all – are ready for anything.   And now, they have shadow puppetry in their arsenal.


Joanne and Frans and I pack up, talk to the volunteers and smush into the van once more.  We head home for a supper of fresh Marrakech sausages from the nearby Moroccan butcher and some typical Dutch mashed potatoes and greens.  Over the fading daylight, we crowd closer and closer to the warm table lamps – preparing the next workshop’s materials and jotting down our thoughts.

They’ll continue rehearsing after I’m gone and prepare for a final performance by the kids, for the community.  The project comes full circle this way.  The shadow puppet revolution is closer than ever.

After a week or so of this routine, we catch ourselves – it seems as though I’ve been here all along, we’ve been friends all along, we’ve been doing this all along.  Weirder still is that this is a reoccurring feeling I get when connecting with fellow puppeteers around the globe.  As the web gets larger, the feeling gets more intimate.   I can’t wait to get back.

Thanks for reading~



In Limbo

I’ve returned to China sooner than I thought.  I didn’t think I’d have the means or impetus to get back before fall, but of course – things rarely go as planned.  I find myself in Hong Kong after an uneventful 28-hour journey from the middle of America.  And, while my jetlag isn’t nearly as bad as it should be, I still feel like I’m swimming in some sort of molasses soup.  Perhaps it’s the humidity or the change of pace from a dawdling Minneapolis summer or probably it’s the fact that I’m in China limbo.

On the spectrum of China to everywhere else, Hong Kong hovers somewhere in the middle for me.  There are certainly a lot of Chinese people here, but there’s a lot of everyone else too.  On a rainy night, it looks like a scene from Blade Runner – late night noodle stand and all.  You can get anything you want from anywhere you want it from and there’s no big brother censorship lurking behind your firewall.  Weirder still, is that I have to rely on English to get me around because I don’t speak the Cantonese dialect and they don’t speak Mandarin Chinese.  It’s such a hardwired default that I’m constantly making the mistake.  Oh, and there’s no traditional shadow puppetry.

So why am I here?   A few months back, as I was trying to settle back into life in the US, Larry Reed made contact.  Larry is the much-respected artistic director of the Shadowlight Company out of San Francisco.  He’s a lifelong student of the Balinese shadow puppet tradition and has collaborated all over the world with his innovative shadow theatre techniques.    He’s been looking to start a project in China and asked me to come along for the ride.  Plus, it all coincided with China’s first ever hosting of the annual UNIMA International Puppet Festival.  How could I say no?

We planned to attend the UNIMA Festival in Chengdu and were happy to tack on the Mingri Puppetry in Education conference in Hong Kong as it’s run by the infallible Simon Wong (who you may remember was my first meeting upon arriving for my Fulbright last year) and he had a few meetings in mind for us.

So here we are in Hong Kong, my China limbo.  It all seemed surreal and odd until we stepped foot into the conference.  A gaggle of student volunteers and dedicated staff had turned an unsuspecting primary school into a honest-to-goodness center of workshops, performances and case-sharings from local and international artists.

I was giddy with delight attending a modern shadow puppet-making workshop by Mr. Li – who has just moved to Hong Kong a few years ago after decades of leadership with the Hunan Puppet Troupe.   Afterwards, I caught shows, lectures on puppetry in therapy practice, vegetable puppet making and much more.  I realized how happy I was to be surrounded by like-minded folk who view the puppet with the same sort of reverence.

This puppet homecoming cured any trace of my queasy limbo and made for a most pleasant trip.  The few bowls of homemade brisket noodle soup I inhaled didn’t hurt either.

If you’re ever in Honk Kong, you really should see what the Mingri folks are up to.  Or catch one of Mr. Li’s shows.

Thanks for reading~

My modern shadow puppet project in progress: using two sheets of laminate plastic, colored permanent markers and some simple tools and materials.

Veggie puppet making class.  Hint:  Long beans make great arms!

Droom Theater from Holland performs for the local children.  Even with the metered pace of translating from Dutch to English to Cantonese, these kids dug it.

Oh, I did a little touristing.  Graham Street market in Sheung Wan – home of amazing eats and hubbub.